Yoga has helped me slow down, ease anxiety, and become more grounded and present. Not surprisingly, these are also some of the most common desires I hear from my students. How, you ask? It starts where it all begins... the breath.
On and off the yoga mat, Connecting with my breath has been a game changer for me. You have probably heard this before because yoga teachers talk about it all the time, but have you ever wondered... what does "connect with your breath" really mean? I have also heard this question time and time again. Many people don’t understand how they're supposed to breathe while doing yoga asana (poses), let alone how to properly breathe in day to day life or in times of stress. Well, there are many different ways we can breathe to help regulate our nervous system, and in yoga we call this pranayama.
Let’s provide some clarity on that, once and for all. During physical practice, it’s best to breathe in and out through the nose as much as possible, which acts as a natural air filter, slows down the breath (effectively calming you), increases the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide that gets to your bloodstream, among other benefits. Sometimes teachers will instruct to let the breath out the mouth (or “sigh out the mouth”), and this will do no harm, but is mostly just a way to let out some steam, release heat and tension. This is what the studies show, but as I say in all my classes, always do what feels best for you.
The most commonly taught yogic breath technique in vinyasa yoga is Ujjayi Breath, AKA “Victorious breath,” “Oceanic breath,” or “Darth Vader breath." While there is some controversy over when and even if to use it, I offer it so that you have the option to understand and explore it for yourself. Ujjayi breath is done by slightly constricting the back of the throat, inhaling and exhaling through the nose making a whispering “hhhh” sound, similar to the sound of darth vader or the ocean waves. And just like those ocean waves, you let the breath roll in and out smoothly through the nose, without any retention, working on lengthening and slowing them down. Bring this breath technique into your asana practice, moving and breathing in a way that feels aligned for you, at your own pace. This breath technique acts as a beautiful anchor for your awareness to rest, helping your stay in the present. The slight vibration of the constriction in the back of your throat can also activate your vagus nerve, helping to regulate the nervous system and relax you. Additionally, Ujjayi warms the body from the inside out to make stretching safer.
As for when to inhale and exhale in a vinyasa class, it usually goes as follows: breathe in as you expand and open up in your shapes (think inhaling the arms up), and breathe out as you contract or get smaller (think exhaling as you fold, squeeze your muscles, or sink deeper into a pose). Check out this video I made as an example.
On the daily, I like to practice deep belly breathing, also known as 3-part breathing, or the Dirga breath, in Sanskrit. Most of us tend to use only ~10% of our total lung capacity, breathing shallowly into our upper chest area, which keeps us in an unrelaxed state of "fight or flight." Dirga breath trains us to use our full lung capacity (did you know that our lungs come all the way up into our collar bones?!), which includes the belly (~60%), ribcage area (~30%), and clavicle. This breathwork helps to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, the relaxation response. I start every day with this pranayam, and I come back to it throughout the day.
I hope this clarifies, once and for all, the best practices for breathing during your asana practice, as well as in your day to day, to make sure you are breathing as fully as possible and getting all of that oxygen needed for your brain to function to its highest potential. So if you're still reading, take a pause.... right now.... and breathe in that good ass prana, baby.